Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2003
Issue No. 649
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Elkab's hidden treasure

A 17th dynasty inscription found three months ago in Upper Egypt uncovered a critical and previously unknown Kushite attack on Egypt. Nevine El-Aref relates the discovery

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A restorer cleaning the newly discovered inscription; a funerary scene of Elkabe's governor Sobeknakht
During the 19th century boom in Egyptian archaeology the tomb of Elkab's 17th-dynasty governor Sobeknakht was discovered. Though its whereabouts were published it was subsequently neglected. Until recently it continued to sit undisturbed upon the cliffs overlooking the Nile south of Luxor, accrued grime and soot obscuring many of its internal inscriptions. Only this year have the tomb's soiled walls been cleaned to reveal an inscription relating a hitherto unknown Kushite raid upon Egypt that has been abuzz with superlatives and speculation among Egyptologists.

Earlier this year a number of British and Egyptian conservators under the aegis of the British Museum began work at the tomb in response to concerns about its deteriorating condition. In the process of cleaning the walls between the tomb's inner and outer chambers they stumbled upon an inscription believed to be the first evidence of a huge attack from the south on Elkab and Egypt by the Kingdom of Kush and its allies from the land of Punt, during the 17th dynasty (1575-1525 BC). The newly discovered inscription is a biographical text painted in 22 horizontal red hieroglyphic lines that narrate the Kushite attack on Egypt and Sobeknakht's successful counter- attack that expelled the invaders. "It is a very important military and religious inscription that was previously unknown," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al Ahram Weekly and asserted that it is the most significant piece to emerge about the 17th dynasty since the famous Kamose stella, now on display at the Luxor museum.

Though Egyptologists had known that tension existed between the Kingdom of Kush, which lay along the Nile in present-day southern Sudan, and Egypt during the period in question, they had no evidence of the kind of clash reported by the inscription.

"This is completely unparalleled," affirmed Vivian Davies, who headed the mission, in an interview from London with the Weekly. Davies initially assumed that the inscription was a religious text because it was near the burial shaft where the spirit of the dead rose to begin its spiritual life. However, as conservators continued to clean the inscription it was clear that it was not a routine funerary text but a biographical text chronicling events from the life of the tomb's owner Sobeknakht.

The text recounts his role in the crisis, from his command to strengthen the defences of Elkab to his mustering of a force to combat the Nubians to his successful counter-attack southwards which destroyed an enemy force through the aid of Elkab's vulture-goddess Nekhbet. The inscription ends with an account of celebration in the presence of the Egyptian king, who is not identified by name, and of the temple of Nekhbet's endowment with a sacred boat.

Evidence corroborating the general scheme of these events have also recently been found in Sudan, where archchaeologists discovered a vessel that was once in Sobeknakht's tomb. Davies stated that this vessel proves that during the invasion Sobeknakht's tomb was already prepared for the old governor's death. Relatedly, early studies on the inscription revealed that it was a late addition to the tomb, as it was painted in red on the outer chamber, which, according to the Ancient Egyptian taboo, made it untouchable. Davies added that as the tomb's decorations were completely finished by the time of the Kushite attack the corridor between the two chambers was the only space left to record such an event.

Davies is not alone in his feeling that the inscription forces a reconsideration of Egyptian history. Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the supreme council of antiquities (SCA), stated that it sheds new light on the extent of Egypt's vulnerability during that period, when the native Upper-Egyptian 17th dynasty centred in Thebes was engaged in a war of independence against the Lower-Egyptian Hyksos who were based in Avaris in the Nile Delta.

"It was a pincer movements on Egypt," Hawass told the Weekly. He said that success by either Kush or Hyksos would have changed the face of Egypt, even up to the present day. Mamdouh El-Damadi, the director general of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, also emphasised how important the inscription is for understanding Kushite ambitions in Egypt. Davies chimed in on this point in stating, "We always thought that the Hyksos were the greatest of Egypt's enemy but Kush was as well." The defeat of the Kush-led invasion represented in Sobeknakht's tomb may come to be interpreted a critical event in Egypt's subsequent defeat of the Hyksos and expansion of its nascent empire into Palestine and Sudan.

The dramatic nature of this discovery begs the question of what revived interest in a site that was catalogued over a century ago and then essentially ignored.

Two years ago, as part of the Egypt and Sudan Department of the British Museum's substantial archaeological programme covering Nile Valley sites and monuments threatened by modern development or in dire need of conservation, Sobeknakht's tomb was finally put on a scientific agenda. Its inclusion in this programme is due to its distressing material condition and its status as the only surviving tomb datable to this crucial transitional period in Egypt's history.

"For us the tomb was like a patient in dire need of urgent care," said Lameya El-Hadidi, one of two Egyptian conservators on the British Museum team. After difficulties finding a solution that would clean the walls without damaging the inscriptions, the team finally settled on small pieces of cotton dampened with distilled water as the best option. However, El-Hadidi explained that the tomb was suffering from not only the accumulation of grime and soot but also from bat waste and bee hives. Among the other obstacles to the tomb's conservation were poor lighting and ventilation, with the effect of the latter being that the conservators were forced to breathe foul air peppered with dust and bat excrement. However, the fruits harvested of this labour went beyond the discovery of the inscription discussed above.

El-Hadidi confirmed that, "what made us put behind our fatigue was the beautiful illustrations that appeared piece by piece while cleaning."

Scenes featuring Sobeknakht with his children and wife were among the iconic ornamentation found. A number of monkeys, some in symbolically erotic poses, are also engraved on the tomb's walls.

A particularly striking scene shows monkeys sitting on the offering table eating the deceased's food.

"It is a cheeky scene," Davies told the Weekly, suggesting that the tomb's artist had a unique sense of humour.

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